On Master Craftsmen Jeff Smith (A Dissection of Bone Vol 1)

Jeff Smith’s Bone has all the ingredients for a good adventure: humour, romance, mystery; and a dragon, of course. Given all of these delightful qualities, I can’t believe I waited nearly 25 years to read it!!

But, in a way, I’m glad I waited until now to read Bone Vol 1 (published in 1995!). It accidentally gave me the opportunity to read Writing with Quiet Hands (2015) by Paula Munier first. Accidentally, because I did not think I’d be using her advice to examine and dissect someone’s else’s work. Munier, as a writer, editor, and literary agent, certainly approaches the art of writing – and selling your writing – from every angle possible. In one section she details the 3 levels of “story questions”:

  • the macro question – the *big question* that drives the plot
  • the meso questions – questions that drive every scene
  • the micro questions – questions that are scattered throughout sentences and paragraphs at every opportunity.

Reading Bone for the first time with Munier’s ideas on my mind, it becomes quickly obvious that Smith is a master of the micro questions. Every page has you asking questions, drawing you in to keep reading until you’ve found the answers. As a graphic novel, this is done on both the visual and verbal level.

Let’s take a look at the cover, for example:

Although the adage “don’t judge a book by the cover” is often true, I don’t think this idea applies to graphic novels. Smith’s illustration does an admirable job of capturing the qualities of his protagonist. We immediately get the idea that the main character looks affable; the rounded features, the side smile, the hint of a blush, all give an overall impression of a “nice-guy” type. An innocent type. Not naive; But the type that looks like he’ll be taken advantage of because of his good-naturedness. And then you have these ominous eyes peering at the character from the shadows, barely visible except for the white of his eyes. So before you’ve even picked up the book to read, Smith has you asking “who is this guy, and is he going to be okay??”

At this point in the narrative (i.e. the cover), we know nothing about the character. We assume he’s the central protagonist. But we don’t know what he’s doing with a dusty old map or where he’s going. We don’t know what his name is, or any other identifiers about him (career, etc). We’re not even sure it’s a he; this is an (obviously biased) assumption made on our part, because we’re also not sure what he is. Is he meant to be human? Some alien or fantasy creature?

Think about that for a second. Despite knowing nothing about this character, Smith still has the audience wondering if the protagonist is going to be okay simply by looking at the cover. Is that not master craftsmanship?

Smith’s microquestions continue on every page. We jump in in media res, the first panel depicts three characters sweating in a desert. The first line reads: “still no sign of the townspeople,” followed by a second character’s response: “Hey! Ya hear that, Phoney? Th’ coast is clear!” From this brief exchange, the audience immediately wonders “who are these guys, and why are they running from the townspeople?” These questions lead to more questions as we learn that the three Bones (Phoney, Smiley, and Fone) are lost in the desert without water. They are ‘off the map’ in uncharted territories. (Literally, as they are caring around a map that no longer shows their location.) This information leads to questions about the world they’re in. Where are they? Why are parts of this world uncharted?

But before we can properly even ask these questions, the Bones are chased by a swarm of locusts (where did the locusts come from??), and get separated from one another. As we follow the journey of Fone Bone as he gets progressively more lost, more questions arise. Chiefly, where the heck is he?? And, as ominous eyes peer at him from the shadow, we continue to ask “is he going to be okay?”

These questions drive the story forward. As you’re never really sure what exactly is going on, or even the rules of the world that Fone Bone finds himself in, the reader is made to ask on every page “is Fone Bone safe?”. But while this macroquestion should have resulted in a tense, suspensful narrative, Bone volume 1 remains firmly in the realms of a fun adventure. With the rounded lines and almost cartoonish artwork, combined with dialogue that is punctuated by humour and emotion, Smith creates a story that is engaging and fun to read, but one that maintains a forward momentum on each page, drawing the reader to keep reading. I can’t wait to read the later volumes (already on my Christmas list) along with the recently announced televised adaptation.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the volume, but, a Special Request: Please don’t post spoilers of later volumes in the comments. I still need to read them myself!